Samantha Field blogs at Defeating the Dragons. This piece was originally published on her own blog on September 19, 2013, and is reprinted with her permission. Also by Samantha on HA: “We Had To Be So Much More Amazing”, “The Supposed Myth of Teenaged Adolescence”, “(Not) An Open Letter To The Pearls”, and “The Bikini and the Chocolate Cake”.
This week, the Duggars announced that their daughter, Jessa, had begun a “courtship” with Ben Seewald. News articles have been floating around in my facebook feed about this, and as I read a few of them . . . my heart sank. Many people are mocking the family, Jessa, Ben, her parents, for how they’ve chosen to handle this.
I can’t get behind the mocking.
All I can feel right now is compassion for Jessa and Ben.
It’s an emotion they might dismiss as completely unwarranted– from all appearances, they’re blissfully happy, and this courtship is what they’ve always envisioned for themselves. I don’t know about Ben, but everything I’ve seen from Jessa is familiar territory– she’s carefully “guarded her heart” so one day she could date with “intent and purpose.” The way she’s been taught to respond to romantic relationships probably feels very mature and sensible. It’s designed to be safe. Everything about it is carefully vetted, monitored, and controlled. There won’t be any unexpected surprises for them. This process will help ensure a happy, Spirit-filled marriage.
But, if I could sit down with Jessa over a cup of tea and talk with her, there’s a few stories I would share.
The eldest daughter of my “pastor,” Leah*, was in her early twenties when an evangelist that came to our church every year suggested a young man, Steve*, to her father. Over the next month or so, her father carefully vetted this young man. The first time Steve came to visit, he didn’t even meet Leah. Her father took him out to dinner, then they sat in his truck for hours while he grilled him from pages of notes and questions. Barely any stone was left unturned– but I remember my father commenting offhand that it’s not likely that Steve was really honest about most of those questions.
The next time Steve came, he and Leah were never given a moment’s privacy. They were never allowed to be more than a few feet away from another member of the family. When he left, they were not allowed to talk on the phone, and could only communicate through letters that were read, out loud, in front of the entire family.
They did, eventually, get married. The next thing I heard about her was that she and Steve had not yet consummated their marriage, not even after being married for months. They were complete strangers when they got married. They didn’t know anything about the other– the only person they had gotten to know had been the person her parents expected to see. Without any private moments, without the ability to talk without being constantly monitored, they didn’t really know anything real.
They’d “courted” a performance, not a person.
When I was in college, one of my best friends got married.
Their courtship story was perfect– charming, adorable, romantic in a Victorian sense. Her parents called him her “suitor” and his visits were “calls.” They had no physical contact– her father put the engagement ring on her finger when he proposed on the beach, in the moonlight– in front of their families. When they went through the wedding rehearsal, they held a handkerchief instead of holding hands. Their first kiss was at the altar, and Charity* looked like she was about to burst with happiness for the rest of the day.
It’s been a few years now, since they got married, and they’ve experienced some significant marital “bumps” in that time. There were a few moments when no one was sure if their marriage would make it. My mother was trying to give hers some comfort and advice during one of those hard times, and I remember hearing her start crying:
“I don’t understand, I just don’t understand. We did everything right. None of this was supposed to happen.”
My own courtship experience was . . . ugly.
We “talked,” getting to know each other strictly in group settings, just like we were supposed to. I asked my parents to come meet him, and we all went out to dinner. I made sure that my father had plenty of time to talk with him, to get to know him. John* asked their permission to “court” me, and we did under the supervision of both our parents. By the end of the summer, he laid out his plan for them, what he planned to do and how he planned to accomplish it, and asked their permission to marry me. When he proposed at a fancy restaurant, my parents were sitting at a table directly across the aisle. For the first six months, everything seemed perfect. It was all going exactly how I’d been taught it should.
But, after I had that ring on my finger and I was in the middle of planning a wedding, and after all our families were on board and we’d announced it to everyone we knew… that was when the abuse began in earnest. It was abuse he kept carefully concealed from anyone– abuse I was promised I was protected from, because, after all, we were courting. We’d done everything exactly how we were supposed to.
And I was trapped.
Because I’d been told to guard my heart, that once I give my heart away, I won’t have my whole heart to give to my husband.
Because I’d been taught that it was my duty, my responsibility, to make sure our relationship was perfectly chaste. He knew that– he sexually assaulted me, he raped me, and he used what I’d been taught against me. I was a cup full of spit. I was a half-eaten candybar. I was that rose with all the petals torn off.
No one would want me, I wasn’t good enough for any other man.
That’s what I’d tell you, Jessa, if I could talk to you.
I’d tell you that courtship doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually get to know that person. I’d tell you that yes, you have to know how a person interacts with people who aren’t you, but you also have to know how he’ll interact with you when no one is watching.
I’d tell you that courtship doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage. There’s no magical promise that is impossible for either one of you to break. Following all the courtship procedures and rules means nothing when you realize that life has changed around you, and you might not believe everything you always did– and he hasn’t changed with you. Courtship doesn’t automatically grant you the ability to communicate without fighting or to have patience with each other. Most of the things you need for a healthy marriage you don’t get through having your parents monitor all your texts and never touching each other longer than a 30-second side hug.
I’d tell you that courtship doesn’t guarantee you won’t get hurt.
People are very capable of hiding. People can be very good at cloaking everything about themselves– especially when they are given an insanely precise checklist to follow. The roadmap, the rules, the procedure– they’re not going to shield you from a man using those rules to get close to you so that he can hurt you.
You might be getting to know this person on an honest, deep level– I don’t know. It’s possible that he’s a genuinely wonderful man and both of you are being completely, bluntly honest. It’s probable that you were raised with the understanding that you never hide anything from your parents– and up to this point, why should you? But, it’s also just as possible that you’re both innocently unaware that you’re not really getting to know each other.
Courtship, you’ve been told, promises a safe adolescent experience, free from the trauma and heartache of a thousand “crushes.” Courtship holds the sweet sanctuary of your parents’ blessing and God’s promises. Courtship is about commitment, and honor, and responsibility, and those are the things that will keep your marriage strong.
And maybe– maybe it will.
But, in the end, if you make it, it won’t be because you courted. It won’t be because of all the questions your father asked him or all the times you wanted to be alone but suppressed the desire. It won’t be because you kissed for the first time after the pastor said “you may.”
It’ll be because of who you are, Jessa, and who he is.
I am so sorry about what happened to you! Are you still married? Are you safe?
Thanks for the honest explanation of a courtship gone wrong. It makes me rethink things that I will say to my girls.
I am safe, now, and married to a wonderful man.
I did learn a few months ago that my rapist is now a youth pastor, and that does concern me.
Have you contacted the church? That is very concerning! I am so glad you are safe.
Why don’t you name him? There are children at risk!
Because blasting his name in the internet world accomplish absolutely nothing except putting me and the people I care about in danger.
Yes. Well-said, well-articulated and brutally honest with a beautifully worded truth that comes across genuinely empathetic with good information that she probably isn’t going to hear from anyone close to her. Thanks for your honesty about your road and its damage – though I hope you aren’t still in an abusive relationship!
I was raised with the expectation of courtship or bethrothal. It terrified me, because I paid attention to the results.
There were girls who were so sheltered, innocent and untouched and taught to submit to a man they were barely allowed to speak to….but he wasn’t taught to be kind, gentle or understanding. A few of these girls were raped on their wedding night, because the man had no concept of being understanding of a girl who didn’t really know him or understand what was going on. They HATED men they felt they had to be married to. Others wound up in abusive marriages. Many just plain didn’t know each other well enough to to have realized they really weren’t compatible personalities.
Well meaning parents who came up in conventional dating America often pull the tree way too far the other way. My advice? If you are determined to do courtship, do it a little differently. Let them talk to each other on the phone without supervision. Let them walk outside without you standing over them. At a certain point in a relationship, let them hold hands (even if after engagement), because it will help with the bonding process without causing impurity. Talk to your sons about the fact that this pure relationship before marriage may require “dating” after marriage. If the boys are being told that a completely innocent girl may not be ready to jump into full fledged marital relations before they get to that point, it could save alot of heartache. That’s a huge thing that was neglected, because these boys are taught the woman is to obey them….but they forget to be kind and understanding.
Sorry….soapbox….I’ll hush. You really struck a chord with me, and I’m so sorry that it effected you personally. Everyone knows the bad things that can happen from dating. Those who believe in courtship are less aware of the bad things that can happen in that.
This all seems like a bad idea. I agree with not being physical before marriage – but not talking or getting to know each other – not interacting in private? This is not the middle ages or the middle east!
This concept of courtship is a first for me to learn of. When I think of courting I think of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder with their long, only the two of them buggy rides in open fields. I guess courting, the way my parents told me, was the mindset of viewing the person you date as a marital partner, and not as just a temporary fling. My parents seemed to think the term courtship was the best way to define dating that wasn’t a game. But I’m less inclined now to use that term to define my idea of dating.
AJ I think many, many people view courtship how you are speaking. Like a modern day thing. But others have taken it way to far.